Last month, 65 of the world's top extreme sports athletes came together at Dubai Festival City to compete for gold as more than 28,000 spectators cheered them on at the ESPN X Games - an event primarily designed for television broadcast. The event was covered by ESPN's production team along with a local crew from MBC for transmission on Orbit ESPN and MBC Action as well as several international channels.
"Normally, for a demonstration event such as the ones we have held the last two times at the Dubai Creek Park, we have about 30 TV production staff," says John Davies, TV production and operations consultant. Davies was responsible for coordinating the TV production side of the games in Dubai along with a local crew from MBC. "This time round, we were doing a competition and such events need a lot more work on both the event management side as well as the TV production end because we require a much larger infrastructure. We need timing and scoring as well as live graphics. Even if this event is not being broadcast live as we normally do for the X Games in the US, covering a competition is virtually like doing a live broadcast.
The team had in place 60 staff including technical crew, cameramen, people for scoring and timing, graphics and the rest of the infrastructure needed for producing this event. "This, in my opinion, is the first time Dubai has ever witnessed a production effort like this for an action sport," he claims.
BMX and skateboard competitions were held on a vert ramp and street course, while Moto X Best Trick and Step Up competitions took place on a separate course at the same venue.
Eleven Sony ENG standard definition cameras were used to produce this event and had to be relocated and replugged for each competition. "The challenge is that as this is a competition, all these cameras have to move after each event. We had a half hour schedule after each competition to unplug, relocate and plug in these cameras and also ensure that all technical staff were in place, had a headset and were ready to communicate. When that competition ends, the cameras move again. You could say there are 11 cameras but doing the job of 33.
Davies and Deane Swanson, senior director of operations, Events at ESPN Games, reiterate that this would not have been possible without close coordination between their respective teams and a lot of planning and practice prior to the event.
"We had to practice all our moves in advance at the venue because when the crowd is there, we can't be moving all those cables from underneath them to relocate the cameras. What we do instead is pre-cable to the different areas that we need like the vert ramp to the street course to the Moto X, then just unplug the cameras, move them and plug them in again," explains Davies.
Both men were at the venue a week before the event to set the whole infrastructure up. "One week is enough," explains Swanson. "Cabling takes a day; another day goes to get the cameras up; another to rehearse, one day to practice with the crew and another to light up the entire area because we do the Moto X at night and we have to light up the entire venue for this. We got HMI lights up at the venue for this.
HMI lighting for the event was sourced from Dubai-based rental house, Cinequip, while most of the local technical staff, cameras and other production equipment were provided by MBC.
The team also brought in a flyaway pack. "We also always bring in our key staff from ESPN for this because shooting action sports requires experienced crew who know certain production techniques. We have a very experienced director from the US, trained cameramen, a producer and operations people from the US. At the same time, whenever we do a local event, we try to leave something back with that country. For that, we use local facilities - in this case, MBC - and their staff, and leave behind a trained workforce. The local staff is going to walk away with a wealth of experience on how we do it in the US because they have never done an event like this before," explains Davies.
"There are some special production techniques you need to know like how to shoot a vert event or a straight event. For instance, when you shoot someone on the vert ramp, you don't just stay tight. Once they drop in from the vert ramp, they come up on the other side and go right up as high as they can get. Now, if you are not an experienced cameraman, what you will do when this guy comes up on the other side is hold the shot tight so that you see him in full frame. But that's not what you want to see. You want to see how much air he is getting and that needs a bit of training and a new perspective.
Davies is an old hand at ESPN having worked with the X Games since its inception in 1995. Although he worked originally with the events side, he now works with TV production and looks at himself as "virtually, the conduit between event management and TV production".
This is also the first event internationally, where the X Games decided at the last minute to change one of its competitions from Step Up to a Tail Whip. "This is because we do not have dirt in Dubai. One of the biggest challenges with motor competitions is dirt. We normally have a metal take off ramp but the landing ramp is dirt. We did a survey all over this place but all we got was sand so we couldn't do the Step Up, which is literally a high jump for a motorcycle. So, we tried the tail whip where the athlete goes up the ramp and whips back, and it's worked really well.
Another factor that is exclusive to Dubai, according to Swanson, is the cosmopolitan nature of the vendors. "Every event is different. In Korea, for instance, we'd be dealing only with Koreans. But Dubai is a cultural hotpot. Our security contractor is from South Africa, something else comes in from France and another service is from the UK. Working here literally gives us a real perspective on how businesses and negotiations are done around the world. It's been a fantastic experience.
Other challenges, according to Swanson, range from sourcing equipment locally for the event and accommodating prayer timings to shipping the athletes' bikes over and tackling the weather.
"Last year when we did this event, we had rain here. That was tough because we didn't have an extra day on our calendar so we had to plan on how to get a competition in a little earlier the next day. Sometimes, it's a bit windy in the evenings and we always hope they die down because these athletes are up in the air doing their stunts and it's critical.
Swanson says it is ideal to have a whole year to plan such an event but with several X Games being conducted annually at different venues now, the luxury of time no longer exists. But having done it for several years, Swanson and Davies agree that a big challenge in production is always how to capture the essence of the sport and get all of the camera angles. "I do the event live everytime. I don't get to do it over again so I better get it right the first time," says the event manager.
Davies also admits that ESPN gets better ratings if it broadcasts an event live. He does not rule out the possibility of going live with the event next year in Dubai. "It's the first time we were doing a competition event here so that was a big challenge in itself. Anyway, this is a competition so we have to shoot it from start to finish as if it is a live TV event. However, there is no live transmission as it brings with it even more challenges at this stage. We also hear that there will be three High Definition OB trucks in Dubai by the next year with different broadcasters so we might also produce the whole event in HD," says Davies.
In the meantime, ESPN claims to have fine tuned the art of producing action sports. In fact, it has put in an enormous amount of research and people into the X Games and over the years, this has developed into a highly complex and technical operation, claims Davies.
"We have a huge production village in Los Angeles now. All the editing, however, is done in Bristol, Connecticut. We walk away from this event with four one-hour programmes that will each be edited specifically for the different channels on which they will be aired keeping in mind their programme and content duration and break formats. Our international syndication programme that goes to Latin America will have a different format from what goes to the ones here," explains Davies.
A highlight reel was also created from each day's events, uplinked from MBC's headquarters in Dubai Media City to ESPN's office in London and from there, broadcast to the rest of the world.
According to the ESPN team, the X Games is a huge investment that can't be done without the support of sponsors. However, it agrees that producing such an event for television has also revolutionised what sports broadcasting now means to people. This phrase may have initially meant covering sports events that were meant for spectators in a stadium but this is no longer the case. The whole sports broadcasting business has moved beyond creating sport for the sake of it to a media game, where most such events are primarily produced for live TV coverage.